This July, ISA’s Abner Oakes shared an update on ISA’s partnership with the National Center for Inquiry and Improvement (NCII) to serve as a subject matter expert with the K-12 schools and districts that partner with the rural community colleges that are part of NCII’s recent project. This work is aligned with ISA’s mission to better prepare all learners for postsecondary, careers, and life, including those who are historically underserved and/or underperforming.

According to a recent report from the University of Wisconsin called Mapping Rural Colleges and Their Communities, rural community colleges serve a diverse population of students. As reported by Dr. Andrew Koricich, an education professor at Appalachian State University and executive director of the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges, rural-serving institutions include:

  • roughly one-third of historically Black colleges and universities,
  • 18 percent of high-Hispanic-enrolling institutions,
  • 93 percent of tribal colleges, and
  • 94 percent of high-Native-enrolling institutions that are not tribal colleges.

See this article from Inside Higher Ed for more information.

Also on the project is Hana Lahr from the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, and below she discusses her role with the project and provides more detail on guided pathways, even for high school students. 

What did you do before you came into your position working with community colleges and their pathways?

Before I started my current position, I worked at a broad access 4-year institution as an academic advisor and in student life. I was there for 2 years or so, and before that I was in graduate school studying counseling; during that time, I worked at Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC) as a graduate intern. I worked in the Office of Student Life, advised the student government association, and helped to organize new student orientations.

At HACC, I worked with many students who were all different ages: high school students, home-schooled students who were taking classes at the college, more traditional-age students, and many older students. It was a cross-section of people with different life experiences and different reasons they were there. It made me very interested in community colleges.

At a 4-year institution like the one I attended, we were there to be students. We lived there and went to class; everything revolved around that. But at a community college, everyone was commuting, everyone was working, and a lot of students had families. In many cases, school had to fit into their already complicated and busy lives.

Could you tell me a bit about what it is you do now?

I work on a team at CCRC that focuses on studying what we call whole-college guided pathways reforms. We’re interested in reforms that impact all parts of the student experience and that are implemented at scale, for all students in all programs of study. At the same time, we’re trying to understand how colleges can implement scaled reforms that are tailored to the needs of different student groups. Different students need different supports, but in order to provide that, colleges need to really learn about their students, their lives, and their goals.

Recently we’ve been focused on a framework that we’ve developed called Ask-Connect-Inspire-Plan, which provides a set of research-based principles to colleges to help them reimagine the students’ first year at the institution with the goal of helping students explore and enter a program of study. We’re focused on that first year because most community colleges lose about 45% of students within their first year. For Black students or students of color, it’s even more, closer to 60%. So in order to improve longer term outcomes like completion and transfer, we think that as a first step, colleges need to help more students get on a path and come back for their second year. 

“Ask” is learning about your students. What are their goals and career interests? What brought them to the school? What else is going on in their lives? Are they caring for a family member? Are they working, and how far are they commuting to school? Do they have stable housing and food? 

“Connect” is connecting students with programs aligned with their goals and people who can help them learn more about different programs and careers. It’s also about helping students feel like they are part of a community of people with similar interests within the college.  “Ask” and “Connect” work together to that instead of asking students to make a program-related decision early on—such as ticking a box on an application that identifies a major—it is important that the college learn about each student and have an advisor who can guide students to a program aligned with their goals and connect them with faculty and others in that program.

“Inspire” is helping students take courses that light their fire for learning in their first term. These are well-taught, engaging courses in topics that interest students. These courses can help students further clarify their interests.

“Plan” is helping every student build an individualized full -program educational plan. It shows them the courses they’ll need to take, the timeline, and the sequence of those courses to complete an associate’s or bachelor’s degree so that they can see everything mapped out. Of course, these plans will change over time, so it’s important for the college to develop processes to ensure that advisors are regularly meeting with students and updating their plans as needed. 

One of the great things about the Ask-Connect-Inspire-Plan framework is that it works with all students, including adult students and students who are still in high school. 

Why is pathways work important to the communities that surround these colleges?

We’ve done some work on what we call cross-sector pathways partnerships, and the idea is that community colleges are not operating on their own; they’re within this ecosystem, which includes the nearby public school districts, four-year institutions and employers.  Ultimately, we want to create pathways to good jobs in the community, but to do that we need to first learn about what employers are looking for. For their jobs, what are the relevant skills, competencies, knowledge, and credentials that they are looking for? That can help determine what kind of degree or certificate a student needs to earn for a job in his or her field of interest and ensure that the colleges and four-year institutions are working together to prepare students for these roles

In high schools, there are a growing number of students in the United States taking on dual enrollment, which is a way for students to earn college credits that can be applied to their high school diploma and to a post-secondary credential. 

My colleagues often call dual enrollment programs “programs of privilege” because certain practices and policies exclude many students from taking dual enrollment courses. Another concern is that students in dual enrollment may be taking random courses because those are the courses offered, students are picking at random, with little guidance, or they’re fulfilling high school requirements. But this is not the fault of the students; it’s often the way that dual enrollment has been organized and offered. Historically, it’s been about taking courses, not about exploring and entering a program. We’d like to see dual enrollment help students—and  historically underserved students in particular—start a guided pathways process at the high school level. How could high schools and community colleges work together to implement Ask-Connect-Inspire-Plan practices for all high school students, including students taking dual enrollment courses?

How did you come to work with ISA and how has the relationship benefitted the program?

CCRC is part of a project led by the National Center for Inquiry and Improvement to work with rural and rural-serving community colleges to adopt guided pathways reforms. To do this, the colleges need to have community partners with them, which includes high schools and school districts. Abner Oakes and ISA serve as the project’s K–12 subject matter expert.

Abner and I and others engaged with this work provide tailored support that the colleges need to build cross-sector pathways in their communities. Bringing these people together helps colleges and people working within them think about ways to develop cross-sector pathways, which can lead college students to good jobs in their regions. We want them asking: Where are the good jobs? And what degrees and skills do students need to get them? And how can we expand access to these good jobs for low-income students, historically marginalized students, and returning adult students?

What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?

There’s an ice cream place in New York City called Ample Hills Creamery. They have this flavor called Summer of Love that they only release over the summer. It’s a sweet-cream ice cream with a rainbow cupcake swirl. It’s amazing.